"Do you believe in fairy-tales and dreams that never end, or shattered hearts and broken souls that only love can mend? Do gallant knights on strong white steeds honestly exist? Or is mystical Camelot a mere shadow in gossamer mists"
Sarah pulled out a dish towel from a near-by drawer and laid it by the dish drainer and then turned the kitchen faucet on full blast. Leaning her hip against the side of the counter she wondered if she'd be able to stay awake long enough to do her homework this evening. Sighing, she glanced over her shoulder to check on the depth of the water. It was her turn to do the dishes and while she didn't have a problem with doing them – chores were part and parcel in the Martin household – she just wished that Momma Martin wouldn't let them pile up.
Instead of just standing around twiddling her thumbs while waiting for the sink to fill, she reached back into one of the pockets of her jeans and pulled out a dog-eared copy of 'The Enchanted Peach.' Sneaking in a page or two shouldn't be a problem even though Momma and Poppa Martin had warned her that chores came before books. Besides, there'd be no point in trying to wash up straight away. Two day old food-encrusted dishes were a pain to clean unless you used extra dish liquid and then left them to sit in very hot water for a good fifteen minutes or so.
As she opened the book, out of the corner of her eye, Sarah could see Cass off in the next room vacuuming. By the sputtering and whining coming from that area, it sounded as if the old machine had about as much energy left in it as she did. Poppa Martin had tried to fix the relic, which looked like it had come straight out of the dinosaur era, several times. Sarah wouldn't have been at all surprised if the thing was held together with nothing more than a mouthful of spit and a stick of gum. A stick of Wrigley spearmint gum to be exact.
Momma Martin chewed it exclusively and compulsively, and Sarah couldn't help but wonder if she chewed it constantly to hide the smell of liquor. It was no big secret to anyone in the house that she took a 'nip or two' on a regular basis. Not that she was a falling down drunk or anything. Momma Martin definitely knew how to hold her liquor and hold it well.
"Better watch what you're doing there, princess," a deep voice filled with warmth warned her from behind.
Startled, Sarah looked up from her book. "Huh?" Then, her face broke out into a huge, breath-taking smile. "Jem," Sarah squealed, happily throwing her arms around his neck.
Reaching passed her; Jem used his thumb to push the handle of the faucet to the down position switching the water off. Returning her hug, he reminded her with a laugh, "The Mommas and the Poppas are going to have your hide if you make a mess, and all on account of some lame book."
Jem chuckled, when Sarah spun around and upon seeing the water about to rise above the basin exclaimed in dismay, "Oh, shit!"
Grabbing the dish towel, she used it as a barrier to keep the excess water and bubbles from spilling out over onto the floor. An extra pair of hands began adding paper towels to the soaked through cotton cloth. Chuckling again, Jem said, "You really should pay attention to what's going on around you, princess."
Sarah blushed, and then blushed even harder when her fingers collided with those of her rescuer. Her rescuer. Her hero. Her knight. That's exactly how Sarah thought of Jem. In her mind he'd been all of those things to her since she was ten years old.
She'd been living with the Martin's for only a little over a week and had been out in the backyard holding court with her stuffed teddy, a dolly belonging to the Martins niece, and an extra pillow from the hall closet. Just as she was about ready to send Sir Lancelot out on his first heroic quest, a boy about Sarah's own age had come charging from around the other side of the house. The boy had stopped short when he'd seen her and then had walked quickly to where she was sitting on the grass.
"Whatcha playen?" The red-haired boy had demanded.
At first, Sarah had said nothing. She wasn't one to talk to strangers, and even though he was just a kid like her, there was something about him that she didn't like at all.
Placing his hands in his hips the boy asked once again, "Well… whatcha doen?" He'd sounded annoyed and that had scared Sarah so she grabbed up Lancelot from his place around her version of the Round Table and clutched him close to her chest.
His eyes had immediately zeroed in on her action and with a nasty laugh he'd reached out and grabbed Lancelot by one of his arms. Sarah had jumped to her feet yelling, "Let him go!" But, he just continued to pull on her bear, with her pulling equally as hard from Lancelot's other arm. They'd engaged in a tug of war of massive proportions over her prized possession. Looking back, Sarah supposed that what had happened next had been unavoidable.
Poor Lancelot had been unable to withstand the pressure and with a terrible ripping sound her favorite toy – and the only thing she'd had left from her real family – was now missing a limb. She'd let out an agonized wail. "NO!"
She'd been standing there with tears of devastation slipping down her face when a teenaged boy came sprinting out the back door. He'd taken one look at Lancelot dangling from her hand minus one arm and the red-headed youngster who held the other part, and had sized the situation up correctly. Swearing softly, he snatched Lancelot's arm from the kid. Then, the older boy grabbed the younger by the back of his shirt and yanked him off of his feet. "You little shit! You'd better get your ass outta here, and if I see you in this yard again I'm gonna make it so that you won't be able to sit down for a good long time!" With that, he'd dropped the younger boy, who scrambled to his feet and then taken off for parts unknown. Sarah had never seen him again.
The older boy watched the younger beat his hasty retreat, no doubt making sure he actually left, before turning back to Sarah. "What's your friend's name," her rescuer asked with a small smile, while picking up her bear's arm and handing it back to her.
Sarah took it from him with a sniff and then mumbled, "Lancelot."
His small smile widened into a huge grin, and it was the most perfect thing that Sarah had ever seen up to that point. "You mean like in the King Arthur stories?"
Sarah lowered the bear from her face, and gave the older boy a tentative smile of her own before saying quietly, "Yes."
He sat down on the ground and crossed his long legs, while informing her, "Those are some of my favorite stories. I love that stuff. For a long time I wanted to be a knight when I grew up."
As Sarah went to sit back down, she whispered, "I think you'd make a good knight."
Tilting his head to the side, he asked, "Do you?" Sarah nodded. "Well, I better know my lady's name then. So, tell me, what's your name Lady…?"
"Sarah." Then, she added, "You were very brave."
He snorted. "Brave? Naw. I just can't stand a bully." His face screwed up into a frown. "Funny though, I don't remember seeing that kid around here before." Shaking it off with a laugh, he said, "Well, enough of that, Lady Sarah." Sticking out his hand, he continued, "I'm Jeremy, but my friends call me Jem."
She shook his hand and then glanced down at her bear. Tears began to well up in her eyes again, and then she stated in a tragic voice, "He ripped my poor Lancelot."
"Hey now," Jem gently admonished, "no more tears from my Lady's lovely eyes. I can fix this, you know."
"Really," Sarah asked with a hopeful look.
"Really," he stated firmly. And Sarah had believed him.
He'd taken her by the hand and led her into the house. Once there, he'd dug out Momma Martin's sewing kit and with great care and precision had fixed Lancelot right up. All the while they traded stories about the things that they liked to do, and interspersing it with tid-bits about themselves.
Jem now knew that Sarah's favorite color was purple and that she loved to eat pizza but hated brussel sprouts. She liked to read, but she hated school because they made her do math. She got along okay with the Martins, but hadn't met anyone else in the neighborhood yet except for the nasty boy that he'd chased off.
Sarah had learned that Jem liked to eat veggie lo mien with shrimp and cream cheese egg rolls. That his favorite color was green and that he too liked to read, but that, unlike her, he was good in math. He'd also told her that he'd lived with the Martins for six years, but had been away helping Poppa Martin's brother on his farm for the last two weeks. When, he mentioned that while he liked her teddy bear, Lancelot: the actual knight from Arthurian legend hadn't been his favorite; Sarah had asked him why. He stopped sewing, looked at her, and queried, "How much do you know about the story of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere?"
"Well, let's just say that Lancelot took something that didn't belong to him, and it really irritated me. I'm not a big fan of thieves."
"Lancelot stole something," Sarah asked with a gasp. "What?" The stories Sarah had read or been told about had Lancelot being the best knight of the Round Table.
Jem looked at her a moment, and then said, "Guinevere was King Arthur's wife. Did you know that?" Sarah indicated with her head that she hadn't known that. "Sarah, how much do you know about Arthur and the knights?"
Shrugging her shoulders, Sarah remarked, "I just started to really like those stories. Most of the books I have are all about princesses and witches and fairies. My teacher at school has been telling us about King Arthur and it sounded fun, so I took some books out of the school library."
Now, Jem understood. It was a certainty that a school wouldn't have books in their possession about men stealing other men's wives, murder, incest and countless other crimes which men – and women – had committed in those tales. No, Sarah's books would be watered down considerably. No doubt they were filled with generic adventures, generic magic, and generic people. Jem supposed that was best for someone of Sarah's tender age.
"They're wonderful! I love the stories about Merlin; he has magic and not just the fake kind either!"
Jem grinned at her enthusiasm and it was obvious by the stubborn tilt of her chin that he would not be wise to argue about Merlin's magic… real or otherwise. He tied a knot in the end of the thread and cut off the dangling piece before handing the teddy bear back to Sarah.
"See," Jem remarked with pride, "good as new."
Sarah's face lit up to Christmas tree proportions and as she raised her head to look at him, he saw that her green eyes were shining with tears, but this time they were tears of gratitude. "Oh, thank-you Jem! Thank-you!" So saying, she flung her arms around his waist and hugged him tight with all of her might.
Sarah felt him release a long sigh, and brushing his hand over the top of her head, he replied, "You're welcome, Sarah." Then, he asked, "What's your favorite fairy-tale?" Best to be getting off of the Arthurian legends. Perhaps, when Sarah was older, they'd be able to discuss the real adventures of Arthur and his knights.
Her voice was muffled because her face was pressed into his shirt, but Jem could make out what she said just fine. "I love them all! But, especially the ones where the girl is a princess only she doesn't know it."
Brushing a finger through her bangs, he shook his head up and down before saying, "I see… like 'The Princess and the Pea."
Giving his waist another tight squeeze, Sarah answered, "Yes, just like that!"
Taking her chin in his hand, he looked around before bending and whispering in her ear, "Maybe we have our very own princess living right here in this very house only she doesn't know it!"
Sarah's eyes grew wide. "Maybe," she whispered back.
"Maybe," Jem continued, giving her chin a light shake, "just to be safe, cause I don't want to get on the bad side of royalty; maybe I should just go ahead and address her by her rightful title of princess. What do you think?"
"Okay," she agreed with a dazzling smile.
Tapping her on the nose, he said, "Okay, princess, how about we ask Momma Martin if we can go to the park for a little while?"
After giving him one more heartfelt hug, Sarah grabbed his hand and began to pull him to the kitchen where Momma Martin was having her afternoon cup of coffee with a dash… or two, of rum.
The years that had followed had been some of the best of Sarah's young life. All due to Jem: Her rescuer, her hero, her knight. He had quickly become her best friend, and she hadn't yet fully realized just how much she depended on him until two years later.
At sixteen, Jem had been deemed by the Martins as old enough to get a job. Having a job, plus school and chores had left very little time for her in Jem's life. Although they lived in the same house, their schedules were such that their paths rarely crossed. Sarah had been devastated.
Those first few months of Jem's employment had been a mess. Sarah was ashamed to admit that she'd been the one to make it a royal pain, or rather; she'd been the royal pain. She just could not deal with the loss of Jem. She began throwing tantrums the likes of which the Martin's, in all their years of fostering kids, had never seen. Finally, Jem himself had to sit Sarah down and explain to her that creating such a ruckus at her age was not acceptable.
At first he'd tried reasoning with her, but reasoning with an unhappy twelve-year old was a lot harder than what he thought it was going to be. He told her that he missed her too. That he wished he could spend more of his time with her. And, that it bothered him that they couldn't manage to read together anymore or act out plays in their favorite place at the park. He had shared with her all of what he had been feeling but, even with all of that, she still wouldn't be reasonable.
She stomped her foot and while in a rage, screamed. "It's not fair! I hate this place and I hate you!" Her words had stopped Jem in his tracks, and though she'd meant it, the look on Jem's face had, for a second, made her wish that she hadn't said it.
Jem was silent for a moment, gravely taking careful inventory of every feature of her face. His eyes moved from the widow's peak sprouting from the perfect oval of her forehead, to the softly rounded cheekbones now filled with hot color, passed the lightly freckled nose, encompassing her softly dented chin After sparing her red-bitten mouth a passing glance, he finally settled on her eyes. Eyes of green, and not just any green, the ever changing green of the Caribbean seas. One moment a dark emerald, the next a shifting of bluish-green, and sometimes, like now, a stormy slate-blue an almost translucent grey. Yes, definitely ever changing, just like Sarah herself.
"Sarah," he said with a firmness that he rarely used with her, "it might not be fair, but not everything in life goes the way we want or wish it would. I really need you to try to understand that. You have to stop this. These fits, or tantrums, or whatever… they have to end! Please."
Crossing her arms over her burgeoning chest, Sarah spat out in defiance, "I won't! You can't make me! None of you can! I'll keep doing it until you give me what I want!"
Exasperated, Jem grabbed her upper arms in a painful grip. Thrusting his face close to hers he shook her so violently that her neck snapped forward and back. "Don't you get it?" he demanded angrily. "They're going to send you away, Sarah! Send you away!"
"No," she denied, her voice cracking, "they wouldn't."
She was frightened, really frightened, he could see that. But, this needed to be done. If it scared her into behaving, so be it. Last evening he'd heard Momma and Poppa Martin tossing around the idea of sending Sarah back to Social Services, and it had scared him shitless too.
"Yes," Jem argued, "they would! And they will if you don't grow up a little." Cupping her cheek with one of his hands, he asked, his voice serious, "Do you want that, Sarah? Do you want to leave and never see me again?"
"No," she whispered, grabbing the hand that still held her face. Wet, wide terrified eyes silently begged him just as the words tumbled from her in an agonized wail, "Don't let them send me away!" She was trembling wildly and the tears were coming so hard and fast that Jem could hardly make out what she said next, "Please…" she stuttered, wiping at her nose with the back of her hand, "I'll be good! I promise! I promise! I promise! I prom…!"
Jem roughly pulled Sarah close and held her as tight as he could without hurting her, and then began whispering unintelligible nonsense into the dark swath of her hair. It was the type of nonsense meant to soothe a distraught child and gradually it began to work. After awhile, Sarah's body had ceased its' trembling and she slumped against him, exhausted but still weeping.
Jem said to her in a choked voice, "Don't cry anymore, princess." Rubbing her back with one hand and holding her head in the crook of his neck with the other, he joked, "I left my raincoat at work." It was a feeble attempt to lighten things up, but he felt Sarah give a half-hearted laugh and it made him feel just a little bit better.
"Don't let them take me away," she begged while burrowing closer to Jem. "Please?"
"Listen to me, Sarah," he spoke softly into the side of her face, "It's all up to you. It's in your power… you have the power to decide whether or not you stay. Not me, you!"
"What'll I do," she asked, sounding confused, but much less distraught. "Tell me what I need to do."
Pulling back so he could look her straight in the eyes, Jem said, "You can start by growing up a little." Pushing her damp hair back from her splotchy face, he asked, "Can you do that?"
Nodding, she said earnestly, "I can do that, I can!" Chewing on her lip, Sarah asked hesitantly, "A little, right?" At his puzzled expression, she went on, "You said I only have to grow up a little."
Jem threw his head back and let out a hearty laugh. "You precious, precious girl," he chuckled while rubbing his nose gently against hers, "Yes, just a little. But, it has to be enough to stop the tantrums and the fighting with Momma and Poppa Martin. But, not so much that I lose my little princess. Okay?"
"Kay," she readily agreed, giving him a watery smile. Leaning forward she kissed his cheek, and added with touching urgency, "I love you, Jem."
"And I you," he assured her.
That was the year that Sarah grew up. Not much… just a little… just enough to please the Martins, but not so much that she stopped believing in magic. Just enough to make things easier for everyone, but not so much that she stopped play-acting scenes from her favorite books while in the park. Just enough so that Jem could go to work with a clear conscience, but not so much that she stopped being his little princess.
It was also the year that –much to Sarah's delight – instead of finding her way to the fairies and their enchanted world as she had so often done in the past… the fairies, for the first time ever, came to her.